GNOME Women in Open Source Project

The GNOME Outreach Program for Women

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The GNOME Outreach Program for Women has seen success that other programs set up to encourage women in FOSS have not. We look at some of the reasons why.

Efforts to encourage the participation of women in free and open source software (FOSS) have come and gone for over a decade, most with limited success. However, few can match the success of the GNOME Outreach Progam for Women. In fact, the program has been so successful that it is now expanding rapidly into other projects.

The secret of the success? Simply that there is none. According to program organizer Marina Zhurakhinskaya, all that is needed to encourage women to apply is “inviting women specifically to participate.” Everything else is a matter of maximizing interns’ chances for success, exactly as any efficient mentoring program tries to do.

The first incarnation of the program began in 2006, after Hanna Wallach and Chris Ball observed that none of the Google Summer of Code applications to work with GNOME were from women. With Google’s help, Wallach and Ball started six internships for women, receiving more than 100 applications.

However, the program was not revived until December 2010. The relaunched program proved an immediate and consistent success. “We couldn’t keep it to ourselves,” says Karen Sandler, the executive director of the GNOME Foundation. After a pilot program with the Twisted Software Foundation, over the past year, the Outreach Program for Women has expanded to include 18 other projects, ranging from KDE and Mozilla to Wikimedia and Tor.

A Model for Mentoring

Ever since its revival in 2010, the Outreach Program has distinguished itself by its efforts to maximize interns’ chances for success. Unlike other FOSS mentoring programs, the program welcomes not only developers, but also documenters, localizers, artists, marketers, and other potential contributors.

Similarly, the revived project has made strong efforts to expand its pool of applicants. Unlike applicants to the Summer of Code, candidates for the Outreach Program do not need to be registered students. Additionally, one of the two annual rounds of internships begins in December, making it possible for those in the southern hemisphere to treat participation as a summer project.

Even more importantly, applicants must make a contribution to a project before the program even starts. This requirement not only proves applicants’ competence, but also introduces interns to their mentors, who can help them decide upon manageable projects, and teaches the mechanics of contributing to their chosen projects.

“Our strongest applicants contribute a lot more than a single small contribution during the application process, and have started developing relationships in the community before they are doing so in an official capacity,” Zhurakhinskaya says. “Depending on the nature of the internship, there are some introductory sessions and materials that we recommend.”

From the perspective of interns, this preparation can mean the difference between fitting in and completing their projects and dropping out. Meg Ford, who’s done three internships with GNOME explains:

Because there are very few women in FOSS communities, at first it can be particularly difficult to feel you are among peers. This creates a very high barrier of entry for women, because a lot of the information needed for developing FOSS software is not written down. It is communicated by the developers, either on mailing lists or on IRC. The feeling of being out of place or appearing stupid can make asking questions and asking for help more difficult. I think this is true for all new developers, but there is a fairly common perception in society that women are not capable of understanding math and science. Because of this, women can be particularly self-conscious about asking for help.

Mentors and participating organizations are similarly prepped with reading materials, so they know what to expect. “GNOME coordinates the program and handles almost all of the administrative work,” Sandler explains. “Each free software organization identifies tis own mentors and possible projects for candidates to work on, and organizations must have a source of funding for at least one participant in order to join.” Additional funding is also available through sponsorships and donations, which are distributed among the strongest applicants in the program.

This sudden growth is welcome, but it also left GNOME scrambling to scale its efforts. Since the program was extended outside GNOME, the program has added additional IRC orientations, and more formal paperwork for participants.

Moreover, Sandler says, “We have noticed that participants are more likely to become ongoing contributors if they meet face to face with other people in the community. Also, it’s the best way to share the values of a community. So we’ve added $500 for each intern to the program to subsidize travel to relevant conferences. Some of the organizations will handle the administration of this themselves, and others will have GNOME do it for them.”

The sudden expansion has had its share of growing pains. Although the GNOME Foundation pays for some administration costs, and Zhurakhinskaya’s employer Red Hat gives her some release time, the need for more organization is becoming obvious. Sandler notes that “we probably need to provide for improving funds for the overall infrastructure. The most immediate improvement we are focusing on is our website.” Another growing need is an application system, “because handling applications for 18 organizations rather than one over a mailing list has become a challenge.” Yet, on the whole, “so far, the expansion has been surprisingly smooth,” according to Sandler.

Continuing Involvement

The main reason for the program’s expansion is that, within GNOME, it has already demonstrated a high retention rate for interns after they have completed their project.

Zhurakhinskaya notes that, of the 41 interns to date, “about half of the interns who participated in the program continue to be active members of the GNOME community,” with at least five going on to become mentors themselves. Their contributions have included work on GStreamer, OpenStack, Empathy, Cheese, and GNOME Shell, as well as accessibility and usability testing. In some cases, their work has been among the first done in their chosen field for GNOME.

One GNOME intern, Ekaterina Gerasimova, has even gone on to be elected a GNOME Foundation director. Several others are scheduled to speak this year at GUADEC, GNOME’s annual conference.

Some GNOME interns have gone on to find employment in FOSS. Others have made other contributions to FOSS in general, including organizing local meetups and an Indian group for women in Free Software.

Project alumni tend to be enthusiastic about their experiences. For instance, Meg Ford explains that, as she grew up, “It never once occurred to me that I could pursue a career in STEM, because it was never presented to me as an option.” Even when she decided to start a computer science degree, she planned “to pursue a career writing options trading software” – plans that her discovery of free software during her internship made her quickly discard in favor of FOSS’ idealism and the independence it offered. “I think it is safe to say that the program really changed the course of my career,” she says.

The continued involvement of mentors is harder to track because their participation depends on a suitable project being available in each round. Also, some may become mentors for another program such as Google Summer of Code instead. However, according to Zhurakhinskaya, 34 mentors have participated in the Outreach Program, 11 of them more than once.

No figures are available yet for the expanded program or for other mentoring programs. However, the enthusiasm with which the Outreach Program for Women has grown suggests that the results within GNOME are significantly beyond those generally found in FOSS. By any standards 20 additional contributors over three years is significant growth – and Zhurakhinskaya adds that other GNOME interns continued to contribute for some months after they finished their participation.

Silencing the Trolls

The Outreach Program for Women is not without critics. Sandler admits that the program has been called sexist – presumably because it is only open to women – and Ford cautions applicants that “you’ll definitely run into some trolls.”

However, one measure of the program’s success is that such criticism has decreased over the years. Probably, it helps that the guidelines for applications are demanding enough that the accusations of lowered standards that are often leveled at programs meant to encourage women’s participation in any field become ridiculous.

And, of course, the success and growth of the program speaks for itself: “We think that people are generally positive about the Outreach Program for Women because it is establishing a good track record of success,” Sandler says. For instance, after participating in the program, “Wikipedia went from having only ever having one female participant in Google Summer of Code to having seven this year. So it’s being borne out that the effects GNOME has seen on participation of women are replicable.”

Clearly, the program’s success is speaking for itself, and silencing many of the skeptics. Already, the program could claim to be the most successful FOSS program for women ever, and, so far, this success shows every sign of continuing.

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